Nature | Editorial

Honey trap

Psychology drives some overindulgence — and it could help us to resist.

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Take a look at the chocolate spilling from your cupboard shelves, the left-over Easter eggs and the fondant-filled bunnies. How do you feel? Do you recognize that combination of wanting to do something and yet knowing that perhaps you shouldn’t?

If you can conquer the call and ignore the stimulus, walk away without indulging, then well done you. Everyone else: you may feel bad as you wolf it down, but please don’t feel too bad. You are merely feeling what it means to be human. You are Hamlet, agonizing over the pros and cons of a single goal: to eat or not to eat.

Psychologists call this particular form of internal torture approach–avoidance conflict. The outcome is binary, but the cognitive processing that goes into the decision is oscillatory. Should I or shouldn’t I? As we near the goal (reach for the chocolate) we feel the pull of the bathroom scales, and so we back away again to avoid the guilt that eating it causes. As we do so, we imagine the taste in our mouth and approach the chocolate once more. In a very human way, this back-and-forth means that, whatever we decide, the effort is stressful and the outcome unsatisfying.

One theory of addiction suggests a severe imbalance in this ‘push-me–pull-me’ dynamic. Most people who have an addiction, from gambling and smoking to substance use, are aware of the damage their habit causes. But they find it easier — pathologically so — to approach their goal than to avoid it.

Can their balance be restored? Some research indicates that it can. Studies involving people with alcohol dependence suggest that physical actions to represent the conflict — pushing away repeated pictures of alcohol to make them smaller or pulling them closer to make them larger — can be manipulated to change the amount a person consumes. (The pushing mimics avoidance and encourages less drinking.) The effect seems to translate to the clinic, with people being treated for alcohol dependence more likely to abstain from drinking if this computerized task is included in their therapy.

Could the same idea work for chocolate? And, on a larger scale, could it help to address the growing obesity crisis? As nations such as Britain introduce sugar taxes, could a little psychological nudge help to blunt our collective sweet tooth too?

Some research suggests so. In one study, students who spent some time being tricked to push away pictures of chocolate — they thought that they were responding to the shape of the image, not its content — ate less of a chocolate muffin than did colleagues who pulled the images closer (S. E. Schumacher et al. Appetite 96, 219–224; 2016). The problem is that other research has found contrasting results. In one experiment, students who were trained to avoid chocolate images actually went on to eat more of the real stuff (D. Becker et al. Appetite 85, 58–65; 2015).

There are psychological subtleties to unwrap here. Existing motivation to avoid chocolate, and cravings to approach it, might be influencing the results. As always, more research is needed, and shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange. One study advertised for volunteers with the phrase: do you like chocolate? And who could avoid that?

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